More than 600 people gathered Tuesday at the State Capitol for Connecticut’s first-ever French Canadian Day, a celebration of French-Canadian culture hosted by state Sen. Gary Lebeau and Rep. Russell Morin.
It took seven years to get the legislature to pass a bill officially declaring June 24 to be French Canadian Day, but it passed last year and, according to LeBeau, made Connecticut the first state in America to officially recognize French-Canadian heritage.
“It’s all about recognizing the contributions of French-Canadian people in the United States and Connecticut,” Lebeau said. “They’re an essential component. It’s an immigrant group that’s kind of been overlooked, because of the timing of the waves of immigration that came from Canada.”
According to Lebeau, who originally proposed the legislation, the bill could have been passed seven years ago had it not encountered such opposition along the way.
“This was not an easy task. We didn’t expect it to go through the first year, but we never expected it to take this long. There was opposition in certain quarters to doing any more [official heritage] days. My argument was, if you’ve already recognized everybody else, why not recognize us?”
The idea for a statewide French-Canadian day was first mentioned in 2006, when Lebeau was approached by Odette Drouin Manning of the Ladies of the French Social Circle. After attending their 10th anniversary meeting, Lebeau announced that he would propose a bill that would honor French Canadian heritage, of which he himself is a descendent.
“In my mind I questioned: Why isn’t there a French Canadian day?” Lebeau said. “Groups of smaller populations have heritage days. Some of these groups are really small compared to French Canadians, who in some Connecticut towns are 20 to 25 percent of the population.”
After the bill was passed in 2013, Lebeau, Morin, Manning, and other members of what was then the French Canadian Day Committee began to meet and discuss their ideas for the event.
“For the first meeting we didn’t have a clue what we were going to be doing,” French Canadian Day Committee Chairman Helene Drouin Labrecque said. “At least 60 people helped us out.”
Though Labrecque admitted that the committee started out unclear on how to proceed, she went on to say that she viewed the event as a success, even likening the celebration to her own wedding day.
“It’s a very emotional day,” said Labrecque. “I am enjoying the day like a bride should enjoy her wedding day. It will definitely be in our memories for a lifetime. We have 635 people of French Canadian descent in attendance, so this is huge. We are very proud of everyone who is here today.”
According to Marie-Claude Francoeur, the Province of Quebec delegate in Boston, the French Canadians in attendance represented many subsections of French-Canadian heritage. Of the 630 people who registered for the event, 260 French family names were represented, as were 78 Connecticut towns and 115 towns in Quebec.
“It is estimated that 20 percent of all New Englanders have roots in Quebec,” Francoeur said. “All of these French Canadians have had a substantial impact on the development of New England.”
Those in attendance celebrated the day with traditional French Canadian music and food, and they were given the opportunity to join Lebeau and Morin for exclusive tours of the Capitol.
“We have a work ethic, we give, we’re patriotic, and we’re great citizens,” Lebeau said. “We helped to build this country, we’ve defended this country, we’ve been there, and we’re glad to be here.”